Notes From the Zookeeper: Miracles

I missed last week. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. Trust me, I had LOTS to say, but I ran out of time in which to say it. We went to see Lego Batman, and it was past my bedtime when we came home. I’m planning ahead this time.

Our zoo works with many endangered species of turtles and tortoises, and in most cases, our goal is to breed them. With few exceptions, these animals are sneaky when it comes to nesting. They create a nest chamber, lay the eggs, and then cover it up completely with any material in the vicinity. Unless you catch them digging, you’ll never find the eggs. It’s difficult in captivity, too. Sometimes the nest is hidden so well that our only clue that they have laid eggs at all is the mud on the back of their shells.

how to breed pancake tortoise

Check it out! She is digging a nest for egg-laying! Note the dirt on her back. She kicks up quite a bit of it as she digs.

Indoor enclosures are smaller, so there is less surface area to cover, but it’s still tricky. Looking for loose soil will get you nowhere. A female will soak the dirt with her own urine to pack it down. And digging straight down yields nothing. The nest tends to hook around in one direction or another to throw off predators. Luck is the best guide.

Sometimes things go wrong. It has happened to all of us. If you’ve spent any time breeding wildlife, the unthinkable will occur. It happened to my co-worker. She had located the newest nest of Radiated Tortoise eggs, but then while digging them up, she broke an egg, a large piece of it falling off in her hand.

It’s a terrible feeling, the crushing weight of all the what-ifs. What if the egg was fertile? What if it was the only one in the clutch to be fertile? What if the female never laid anymore? When I inadvertently broke an egg, I had to go to bed early. My co-worker holds our institutional record for Radiated tortoises. Doesn’t matter. It still hurts.

But maybe all was not lost? The shell was broken, an inch-and-a-half piece gone. But she noticed that the membrane inside was still intact. There was no way to wash the dirt off of the egg like we usually do. There was too great a risk of introducing bacteria through the thin and porous membrane. She chucked it in the incubator, dirt and all, and carefully balanced the broken piece of shell over the gaping hole. And hoped for the best.

And sometimes hope is not misplaced.

We call this baby “he” because this species has temperature-dependent sex determination. The temp the egg is incubated at can determine gender for many, many species. An aside, climate change can have devastating effects on such species since only a variation of 4F degrees determines gender. Another aside, I cannot spell “devastating” without help from spell-check.

Updated for extra squee:

The only evidence of his precarious beginnings is the number of scutes on his shell. All species of turtle and tortoise in the world, from the tiny Padloper to the biggest Galapagos Tortoise have the same number of scutes (scales) on their shells. There are 22 around the bottom margin (appropriately named “marginal scutes”) and 13 of the bigger ones. Native Americans even referred to the calendar as “13 moons on the turtles’ back” because there are 13 new moons in a year. But sometimes incubation issues can result in too many or too few.

turtles have belly buttons

The little zig-zag in the middle is what you’re looking for.

Meatball has a couple of extra ones, referred to as “split scutes.” It is a purely cosmetic issue and only adds to his charm.

Updated a second time to include the best shot of tortoise tushy EVER!

how tortoises hatch

TUSHY!!! Look at those chunky thighs!

I hope you have a great week! What are the miracles in YOUR life?

Advertisements

Come In For the Cute, Hang Around to Save a Species

Introducing Astrochelys radiata- the second one ever hatched by our zoo

Introducing Astrochelys radiata- the second one ever hatched by our zoo

See? Cute! Now, keep reading. You have the power to help save these guys.

Chances are, you didn’t know that sports could help save a critically endangered species. When we hear about an animal rapidly becoming extinct, our first thought is to wonder what we can do about it. Sometimes, there’s not a simple answer. Take the Radiated Tortoise, for example.

Astrochelys radiata, endemic to the island of Madagascar, is experiencing a dizzying population decline. In the last 10 years, numbers in the wild are thought to have dropped by half. The animals are being collected illegally for both the pet trade and for human consumption. This video explains  that the tortoises are not being consumed by those who are starving; they are a luxury item on restaurant menus in other parts of the world.  The assistance of local villagers is critical to saving this species, but there’s a catch.

In the villages around the spiny forests where these tortoises live, it is taboo to touch one of these animals or even to look at them. They believe that Radiated Tortoises are the reincarnation of their ancestors, and though they are not directly involved in the poaching, neither have they been in a position to stop it. This is changing. Through partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (go ahead – click the link and sign up for their free newsletter. It’s fascinating! Even better, go join!) villagers are beginning to take an active role in the survival of this species. TSA has helped build schools for villages who agree to help the tortoises. And now there’s a new opportunity.

Utah’s Hogle Zoo, in  partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance and Conservation Fusion, have come up with a wonderful and positive way to help both tortoises and kids. Through the Give Balls program, this partnership hopes to donate 250 One World Futbols, a ball that is designed specifically for the rugged terrain of rural villages and never deflates or needs pumping, to 10 villages in southern Madagascar. Through donation of the balls and other sports equipment, in addition to environmental education, it is hoped that the village youth will be inspired and empowered to protect the species that is sacred to them.

To donate a ball for $25, click here. There’s even a fun option to buy one, give one for only $39. For every ball donated, One World Futbol will donate an additional $5 to purchase uniforms and other equipment for the villages.

If you can’t donate at this time, you can still help. Share this post, or even write one of your own, to help raise awareness of this fabulous program. I know everyone’s dumping ice over their heads right now, but I think we can share the donation love a little. A goal of 250 balls is a modest one. Let’s help Hogle Zoo blow this goal out of the water!

Help kids to be kids while at the same time helping to save a species.

 

If the links don’t work, try clicking here. http://www.oneworldfutbol.com/campaigns/hogle-zoo or pasting it in your browser.

 

Happy Things

It’s Spring Break! Well, it was. I had a whole week off. That’s a lie. I had quite a to-do list, so there was very little time for the nothingness I had hoped for, but it was still pretty darned good. I thought I would share a little of the awesome with you.

Most folks know I’m a zoo girl. One day a week, it is my privilege to get to work with critically endangered turtles and tortoises. One of them is the Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), a species native to Madagascar whose numbers have dropped by half in the last ten years. We have a breeding pair of them, and this year I was asked to teach them to drink out of a water  bowl. Sounds weird. An animal encounters water, they should know how to drink, right? But some animals do not. If the surface of the water is not moving, many desert animals are not stimulated to drink. They can see the water, and they can smell it, but they don’t quite know what to do with it. The chances of them encountering standing water in the wild are almost non-existent.

Armed with a spray mister and no small amount of determination, I set out to teach our pair what a water bowl is for. When Radiated tortoises feel a spray of rain, they instinctively stand. They have even been known to dance. The idea behind the spray mister is to get them to their feet and then place the water bowl right next to them so that when they lay down, they are practically in it. Then the surface of the water is sprayed to agitate it an hopefully inspire the animal to take a drink.

The animals are naturally shy. At first, I had to stand behind them while I sprayed so that they would come out of their shell at all. Tortoises can see colors, and the bright blue volunteer shirt was a little off-putting and reminded them I was there.  I had no luck at first. They were too intimidated by my presence to drink. After a few weeks, we began to see some progress. They would stand for up to 20 minutes while I sprayed them, but they still wouldn’t drink. A couple of times, one or the other would land clumsily in the water bowl. I could see twin dimples in the water from their nostrils as they took the scent of the water. They tasted it briefly, and then got startled and pulled back in their shells.

Long story short (too late?), after three months of work, my work is done. Just in time to send them outside for the summer where they will forget everything I taught them. But I did it. There is nothing more satisfying than watching the female turn toward the bowl and dip her head, the muscles in her neck moving rhythmically as she takes a long drink.

There are things you don’t expect to see on my blog. Mammals are one of those things. But my friend called a couple of days ago and shared the exciting news that her English cocker spaniel had delivered a litter of eight puppies. Eight. Six girls, two boys, all doing very well.

Over the next couple of weeks, the pigment in their noses will begin to appear, their ears will open, and their fur will fill in. Right now they look like they haven’t quite cooked all the way. Give them time!

And here is my favorite happy thing to share today. People ask what I get out of blogging. Besides the endless piles of cash, of course. Sometimes the benefits of blogging are intangible. There’s the satisfaction of a job well done. There is also the joy of meeting a fellow blogger in person and learning they are exactly as you imagined them to be, except even better. And then there’s this:

Yes. It's a barf bag. The most wonderful barf bag in the history of such things.

Yes. It’s a barf bag. The most wonderful barf bag in the history of such things.

 

I came home the other day, and I found this beauty in the mail. After reading my Pinterest craft post, a wonderful blogger sent me the most fabulous Hello Kitty motion discomfort bag. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world! I can now honestly say I am not in blogging for the money. I’m in it for the barf bags. Thank you, Susan! I treasure it! And if you have never read Susan’s work, go visit her at Lost In China. She has been Freshly Pressed a few times, and for good reason. Go read about her online dating life and life with her very traditional parents. I’ve linked you to one of my favorite posts. Go! Read! Laugh!

I have other good things to share. There is just too much awesome in my life for one post. Stay tuned! What’s awesome in your world?

Weekend Good News!

I am so, so proud of my zoo and my readers.This post left you with the good news that we had successfully raised enough money to buy furniture for the school in Madagascar. Thank you to everyone who donated and shared links. Together, we helped a village.

Knoxville Zoo Blog!

Michael Ogle, our assistant curator of herpetology here at Knoxville Zoo, is kind of a big deal in the world of tortoise conservation, although he is far too modest to ever admit it.  He’s been a key part of our success breeding some of the rarest tortoises in the world, often making us the first zoo to do so.  He is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to species found in the country of Madagascar, which led to the invitation from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to travel to southern Madagascar last month to work with some of his Malagasy counterparts to help locals care for confiscated tortoises.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest factors in the demise of the critically endangered spider and radiated tortoises is the illegal pet trade (these tortoises are highly sought after by collectors in Asia) and the fact that they…

View original post 530 more words

Playing Favorites

I admit it. I know I’m not supposed to, but of all the little ones, I have a favorite. Don’t tell the others, please.

Astrochelys radiata, the radiated tortoise

I know that all the babies are adorable, but this one has a special place in my heart. The population of the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) has dropped by half in the last ten years. They have been wiped out of most of their range, so captive breeding programs are of critical importance. She’s the second one my zoo has hatched.

I call this one “she” because she was incubated as a female. Many reptiles have what is called temperature dependent sex determination. When the egg is first laid, the embryo within has no gender at all. The temperature at which it is incubated has an impact on whether they develop into boys or girls. Keepers can often produce the gender they need by altering the temperature at which they incubate the eggs. With this species of tortoise, higher temperatures usually yield more females. Lower temperatures tend to create males.

A perfectly proportioned tortoise in a tiny package

Here she is with her older sibling who was hatched in July. I have no idea whether the older one is male or female. Its egg incubated outdoors for a bit, so it was subject to unknown temperatures. Radiographs in a few years can tell if we’ve got a boy or a girl.

Pesky little sister

One thing I really enjoy about this baby is her personality. She is all go. I have no good recent pictures of her because she won’t sit still. From a biological standpoint, her curiosity isn’t a good thing because she might get eaten, but in captivity, it’s positively delightful.

I’ll be back on Monday full of my tales of adventure. And hopefully with some new pictures. Have a great weekend!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Good News Edition

If you recall, this post left you with a cliffhanger, and I’m not one to leave you hanging forever.

Knock knock! Who’s there?Introducing Astrochelys radiata- the second one ever hatched by our zoo

One of the most endangered tortoises in the world

Here’s a picture of one of the parents.

This is mom. She’s taller than a basketball, and much, much heavier.

The new baby is a bit smaller than its folks.

Yeah, that small.

And now the update you’ve all been waiting for! Can I get a drumroll, please? If you read this post, you know my supervisor at the zoo has been working to raise $2000 to buy desks and chairs for a school in Madagascar. Thanks to readers who forwarded the post all over the internet, we met our goal. In five days. Our total stands at $2443, and all of the money goes to the school. Give yourselves a hand! Thanks to everyone who donated or shared links. Your help will have a direct impact on the lives of 100 children in Madagascar. The baby tortoise featured in this blog is the same tortoise species that the children’s parents are helping to save, which bookends this story beautifully.

And I leave you with one more tortoise belly button.

Notice how this one is an oval instead.